Fifty years ago, August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his most famous speech ever, I Have A Dream. It was a dream of the way the world should be, where people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their hearts. It was a dream to live in a land where freedom and justice reigned and that all people, no matter creed or nationality, would be free. It was a dream to live in the type of society that God promised and that the prophets imagined, a dream where all would be focused on the glory of God. King did not pretend that America was God’s chosen people or that the United States and the Kingdom of God should be synonymous. He simply chose to live in the reality that while not completely visible, God’s Kingdom came through Jesus Christ and that Christians have the responsibility to witness to that Kingdom in all that they do. Part of this witnessing is to give honor and respect to those in society who have been denied it and to do so not by using the ways of the world but by using the ways of the Kingdom.
One of the major ways that King witnessed to the coming Kingdom was through his insistence on nonviolent resistance. King did not choose nonviolence as a tactical strategy but because of his basic understanding of the gospel. Jesus calls us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to not avenge ourselves but to leave room for the wrath of God. It is almost impossible to love your enemies while pointing a gun at them or beating them over the head with a crowbar. King knew that African-Americans would never win their struggle through violence but that they must find another way. It was the way of Jesus, the way of the Cross, who chose to sacrifice himself instead of fighting back and in doing so triumphed over Satan and sin.
Many, even today, consider nonviolent resistance as cowardice or passivity. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Nonviolent resistance is not passively letting others control or manipulate you. Nothing about the civil rights movement was passive. The Montgomery Bus Boycott was active, the Selma March was active, the sit ins at lunch counters were active. It takes courage to march down a street knowing you will not employ violence to face your enemies because you want to witness to the coming Kingdom. It takes courage to admit that the ways of the world have failed and we must try another way. And as King stated repeatedly, the ultimate goal was not just to gain civil rights for African-Americans but was to restore relationships between the races. The goal was to bring people together into loving embrace, to destroy the sin of hatred. Thus the means must lead to the end. Violence does not restore relationship, it destroys it. Only through demanding justice and righteousness while also loving the other can relationship be restored.
It is amazing that even today many Christians so quickly choose to use force to solve injustices or problems. For a group of people who look forward to the day when “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4, Micah 4:3) it seems counter productive to immediately pick up a weapon when faced with danger. Obviously a debate can be had about whether Christians should ever use force or not, but it is sad that the example of Jesus who triumphed not by using an army but by self-sacrifice is rarely discussed. As witnesses of the coming Kingdom, may we have the courage to not succumb to the ways of the world but to strive to live out an alternate way of life, a way of nonviolent resistance.
On this day, when the country stops to honor a great man and a great movement, may we as followers of Jesus be encouraged to imitate the example of Dr. King. May we constantly strive to ensure righteousness and justice for all people. And may we do it in a way that witnesses to the coming Kingdom of God.